Looking over my notes after interviewing Jumeirah Group CEO Gerald Lawless, I sensed I was not going to be incorporating many of his quotes into my story about how Americans fit into Dubai's tourism marketing plans.

Lawless certainly has a lot to talk about. He has ambitious expansion plans. His flagship hotel in Dubai, the Burj Al Arab, is consistently rated as one of the most luxurious in the world. And he outmaneuvered some heavy hitters to raise the Jumeirah flag over New York's Essex House.

But no matter what I asked him about, he managed always to steer the conversation back to the same topic: the people who work for Jumeirah.

It was clear after inspecting his properties that Lawless values unique architecture and design, fine restaurants and cutting-edge technology, but, he said, "success will come from the people side." He puts great stock in what he called the "three hallmarks" of Jumeirah service, which are memorized by employees during training. They are: I will always smile and greet our guests before they greet me. My first response to a guest will never be no. I will treat colleagues with respect and integrity.

I have to admit that when Lawless first recited these to me during an interview in October 2005 I thought they could be the marching orders for any of dozens of luxury chains. They sounded generic. They were what I supposed a student heard on Day 1 of any introductory luxury hotel training program.

Something else needs to happen beyond memorization. When I sat down to interview Lawless in Dubai last month, I had been staying at his Madinat property for a couple of days, and I was impressed with the service. And I came to believe it was the third of the hallmarks -- "I will treat colleagues with respect and integrity" -- that was fundamental to Jumeirah's success in training.

The sentiment behind that hallmark won't work if it's practiced only in peer-to-peer interactions or is simply guidance for influencing middle management's behavior towards service workers. It has to be practiced first and foremost in the C-suite, because unhappy staff at any level will, sooner or later, result in bad customer experiences. If top management's commitment to employees isn't genuine, no one will be fooled by lofty lip service.

Lawless engages with his staff easily, and lights up when he talks about employees. "I meet with the staff, all the staff, in a program called 'Talkback,' " he said. "I update everyone on what's happening with the company, then take questions from the floor.

"It's clear from the questions that we not only have talent, but sometimes underutilized talent. I spoke with a Chinese doorman who, it turns out, was an honors graduate from a hotel school. Afterward, I asked our HR department to identify colleagues who are underemployed and train them, equip them to move to a higher position. Even if they leave us and go back to their own country, they'll have more opportunity."

Jumeirah staff with whom I spoke, without exception, said they were pleased to be working for the company. All employees are provided housing in what amounts to a self-contained neighborhood, complete with a cafeteria where all food is complimentary to staff, even on their days off, and transportation is provided to and from work. Employees also receive a complimentary flight each year so they can visit their home country if they wish (there are more than 100 different nationalities working for Jumeirah).

But those are essentially benefits, and benefits are not necessarily a reflection of respect. Something more is at play here.

"I believe we have had cultural success with our colleagues," Lawless said. "That's critical in developing an obsession with guest service."

Robert Kunkler, general manager of Madinat Jumeirah, had told me earlier that "Gerald Lawless is the heart and soul of Jumeirah." That certainly jibes with my observations of both the man and the company, and it bodes well for the future of both.

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Look for additional details on this article in the Cover Story of the March 19 issue of Travel Weekly.


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